An Insight About the Title’s Meaning for “The Phantom Tollbooth”

Gate in a park

For my book about the five senses, I’d been meaning to re-read that brilliant work of children’s literature, The Phantom Tollbooth (Amazon, Bookshop) — with its beautiful descriptions of colors and sounds, and its emphasis on the importance of paying attention to the world around us.

I was very saddened to hear of author Norton Juster’s recent death, so I finally pulled the novel off the shelf. The story of Milo’s adventures was even better than I remembered.

There are so many funny little asides — as when everyone sits down in Dictionopolis to eat their words, and Milo is offered a synonym bun. Or when a character explains to Milo, “I see through things…My father sees to things, my mother looks after things, my brother sees beyond things, my uncle sees the other side of every question, and my little sister Alice sees under things,” and, he adds, “Whatever she can’t see under, she overlooks.”

And perhaps only as an adult, I can realize the true danger of the demons who try to stop Milo in his quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

For instance, the Terrible Trivium is the “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” He tries to stop Milo and his companions by assigning them useless tasks. He tells Milo and his friends:

“If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”

Milo escapes from that demon, then confronts the Senses Taker, who tries to distract the rescuers through their senses: he shows Milo the spectacle of an exciting circus, he beguiles the watchdog Tock with a wonderful smell, and he enchants the posturing Humbug with the sound of applause.

“I warned you I was the Senses Taker…I help people find what they’re not looking for, hear what they’re not listening for, run after what they’re not chasing, and smell what isn’t even there….I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion.”

But my biggest thrill from the novel came a few months ago, even before I re-read it.

I had an insight. And I have to say, I’m exhilarated by my own insight!

By way of background, ever since I was a child, I’ve wondered about the book’s title. It doesn’t make sense. Sure, there’s a tollbooth, but in the story, it’s not a “phantom” — it arrives as a mysterious gift that Milo must assemble, and when it disappears, an encouraging letter explains that it’s needed by other children.

But recently, I had my insight.

I’m deeply interested in aphorisms, fables, paradoxesteaching stories, epigrams — and koans. A koan is a question, story, or statement that can’t be understood logically; Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment.

So one afternoon, I was pondering koans, and flipping through my various books about Zen and collections of koans (yes, this is the kind of thing I do all day, as a writer).

As I considered them, I started thinking about the classic phrase that’s the title of a famous collection of koans. The title of this work is usually translated as The Gateless Barrier or The Gateless Gate.

Awkward wording, right?

So I was thinking about how else the phrase might be translated…


I’ve never found any other discussion of the book’s title or meaning. If you know of an explanation, let me know.

Did Norton Juster deliberately, subtly allude to the history of Zen? Or from his own imagination, did he arrive at the same image, to try to convey the same meaning?





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